Although it seems like eons ago, the Pirates made the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2015. Since then, it’s been a slow-and-steady decline straight to the bottom of the National League Central. Pittsburgh finished in third place in 2016, in fourth place in 2017 and 2018, and hit rock-bottom, finishing in last place in 2019.
Last season the Pirates held their own in the first half, where they hovered around .500. At the All Star break, they were only 2 ½ games out of first place, then reality hit. In the second half of the season, Pittsburgh went 25-48 (a .342 winning percentage), and ended up with the second-worst record in the NL, at 69-93. The disastrous second half ultimately led to regime change, as ownership canned both General Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle this offseason.
The Pirates are one of the youngest clubs in baseball entering into 2020, but they lack the star power, excitement, and upside of a young team like the Blue Jays. While the Jays have exciting 20-somethings across their lineup, including multiple players with prospect pedigree and high-ceilings, the Pirates have replacement-level stop-gap players that will likely look overmatched and underprepared, particularly early in the season.
It’s not all bad entering 2020. Last season home-grown first baseman Josh Bell cranked 37 home runs and 37 doubles en route to a 135 wRC+. Beyond a change in the baseball, there’s little reason to think he’ll seriously regress, as his average and OBP are aligned with what he had shown previously, and his BABIP ended a modest .288.
Another potential bright-spot is 25-year-old Bryan Reynolds, who led Pirates position players in fWAR in 2019, and again will man left field. Unlike Bell, Reynolds’ batting average was inflated by a monstrous .387 BABIP, making a .300+ batting average unlikely this season (enter ‘Regression Monster’).
In addition to Bell and Reynolds, rookie shortstop Kevin Newman broke out in 2019. Another home-grown player on a roster of (cheap) home-grown players, Newman finished the season with a 2.4 fWAR, and showed decent speed by nabbing 16 stolen bases (though catchers nailed him a further eight times). Similar to Reynolds, FanGraphs’ projections are not so favorable to Newman, as Depth Charts, Steamer, and ZiPS all project him for a step-back, and around 1.4 fWAR in 2020.
All told, the entire Pirates lineup is projected for 12.1 Wins, a sure-fire recipe for another last-place finish. Pittsburgh traded away Starling Marte, and lost Melky Cabrera, and basically replaced them with slightly above replacement level players making less than $1 million.
On the pitching side, an aging Chris Archer, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and Steven Brault hardly inspires confidence in a rotation. The one potential bright spot is Mitch Keller, a 23-year-old starter who struck out 65 batters in 48 innings, while walking only 16.
As if things on-the-field weren’t bad enough for Pirates fans, the team has again been in the news as subject to a players grievance for not appropriately allocating revenue sharing money.
While the team can call that accusation “baseless” all it wants, the reality is this team hasn’t spent nearly enough to be competitie, and the product they’re putting out on the field in 2020 is devoid of much Major League talent worth watching.
It’s going to be a long summer in the Steel City.